South Asia

Sri Lanka: A Tentative Peace

Tamil Tiger surrenders his weapons
An unidentified Tamil rebel surrenders his weapon in a March 24, 2002 ceremony in Vavuniya, as religious leaders look on (Photo: AFP).

In December 2002, the cease-fire between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers) will mark its one-year anniversary—a milestone in the history of the two-decade-old conflict. At the same time, the country’s economy is expected to grow by 3 percent this year, up from last year’s unprecedented drop in gross domestic product. Tourist arrivals have increased from 28,600 last July to 35,800 this year. The killings that have marked this conflict (approximately 60,000 lives have been lost so far) have largely subsided.

These developments are enough to make some people appreciate the new atmosphere of relative peace. But others “are once bitten twice shy,” as an Oct. 6 satirical column in Colombo’s independent Sunday Times put it. After years of civil war, many Sri Lankans remain distrustful of the LTTE.

With good reason. Over the course of Sri Lanka’s decades-old conflict—which has pitted the ethnic Sinhalese majority, represented by the government, against separatists from the ethnic Tamil minority—tens of thousands of Sri Lankans have died. A first attempt at peace talks between the government and the LTTE was launched in 1985, but collapsed in the same year. In 1987, an Indian peacekeeping force deployed to monitor the situation; it left in 1989 amid heavy fighting. In 1991, former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was killed in a suicide bombing blamed on the LTTE. Two years later, Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa met the same fate. His successor, Chandrika Kumaratunga—the daughter of two prime ministers, Sirimavo and Solomon Bandaranaike—promised to end the war quickly. But in 1994, peace talks failed again, and Kumaratunga asserted she would be forced to resort to military measures.

Throughout the rest of the 1990s, Tiger bombing campaigns and government offensives followed each other in rapid, vicious succession. Kumaratunga herself was almost killed in a bomb attack during a 1999 election rally. The war continued, and a series of successful LTTE attacks—including one at the strategically important Elephant Pass in 2000 and a suicide bombing on Sri Lanka’s international airport the next year—shook popular confidence in the government’s military approach. Kumaratunga’s government was forced from office.

After so many years of bloodshed, it is hardly surprising that any sign of a lasting peace agreement should be greeted with celebration. Yet the euphoria that was present during the first several months of the peace process is now starting to die down and people are starting to remember the past. After all, many Sri Lankans were euphoric during the failed 1985 and 1994 peace talks.

But the approach this time has been different. Many of the most important—and most controversial—issues of the peace process, such as the mechanics of an interim administration, have been put on hold. Instead, the two sides are focusing on issues that almost guarantee a compromise, such as de-mining, rehabilitation of the north and east, and dealing with internally displaced persons.

An Oct. 1 analysis in the government-owned Daily News found “the outcome of the first round of peace talks between the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam [in mid-September at the Naval resort of Sattahip, Thailand] more successful than anticipated.” And from the government’s perspective, this was certainly true. The talks concluded with Anton Balasingham, the LTTE’s guiding intellectual force, conceding, “Homeland doesn't mean a separate state as such. It refers to a territory where the Tamil-speaking people live.” Much of the Sri Lankan and international media immediately pounced on the compromise as “historic.”

But other Sri Lankan commentators were not as impressed. An Oct. 6 column in the Sunday Times questioned Balasingham’s sincerity: “[For a long time] you chose not to do that [concede that the LTTE were not seeking a separate state] and there must have been a very good reason for that! …Most people are reluctant to give you the benefit of the doubt!”

Although the United National Front (UNF) government has succeeded in bringing real change to the country since it came to power last December, as the peace process progresses some skepticism about its prospects for success does appear to be warranted.

In early October, seven died in clashes in the eastern town of Kanjirankudah. An Oct. 9 headline on TamilNet, a Tamil nationalist Web site, put the blame squarely on the Special Task Force (STF) of the Sri Lankan armed forces: “STF fire on demonstration—5 killed, 15 wounded.” The following day, the independent Island, known for its Sinhalese nationalistic stand, had a different version of events: “LTTE storms Akkaraipattu STF camp.”

Another battle of accusations erupted when the LTTE sought the release of their members being held as prisoners of war. An Oct. 2 editorial in Colombo’s independent, Sinhala-language Divaina concluded, “Tolerating the LTTE’s maltreatment in the name of peace by the leaders of both sides is shameful.” On the same day, the Jaffna Tamil daily Uthayan remarked, “The government signed the MoU [Memorandum of Understanding] to begin a new era, so why are they [the government] unable to just forget the past and release the prisoners? What is the government gaining by bringing them to justice?”

Both parties are finding it difficult to trust each other. “What holds back most people in the South is their memories about the nasty and brutal acts the LTTE committed in the past rather than the various provocative acts committed by some of their cadres at present,” was the independent Daily Mirror’s Oct. 4 analysis. A similar sentiment prevails towards the Sri Lankan military in the north and east.

On Feb. 22, the day on which the Memorandum of Understanding was handed over, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe warned: “Solutions cannot be found overnight to issues which have proved to be intractable for two decades.” Months later, in an Oct. 1 column for the Daily Mirror, Jehan Perera, an outspoken supporter of the peace process, agreed that peace could only come after real changes. “There needs to be social acceptance for national reformation to take place.”

Both sides have demonstrated the political will to reach a peaceful compromise. The question now is whether the cease-fire will hold long enough to build the trust necessary for a real agreement.